And just a few years ago, major retailers were marketing T-shirts at our young girls that read things like, “I’m too pretty to do math,” or, “I’m too pretty to do my homework so my brother does it for me.” And let’s not forget about the parents.
Oh, the parents. It turns out that when parents are worried about their own math ability and they help their kids a lot with math homework, their kids learn less math across the school year. As one parent put it, “I judge my first grader’s math homework by whether it’s a one-glass assignment or a three-glass night.”
When adults are anxious about their own math ability, it rubs off on their kids and it affects whether they choke or thrive. But just as we can put limits on others, we can take them off.
My research team and I have shown that when we help parents do fun math activities with their kids — rather than, say, just doing bedtime stories or bedtime reading, they do bedtime math, which are fun story problems to do with your kids at night, not only do children’s attitudes about math improve, but their math performance across the school year improves as well.
Our environment matters. From the classroom to parents to media, and it can really make a difference in terms of whether we choke or thrive.
Fast-forward from my high school soccer game to my freshman year in college, I was in the chemistry sequence for science majors, and boy did I not belong.
Even though I studied for my first midterm exam — I thought I was ready to go — I bombed it. I literally got the worst grade in a class of 400 students. I was convinced I wasn’t going to be a science major, that maybe I was dropping out of college altogether.
But then I changed how I studied. Instead of studying alone, I started studying with a group of friends who at the end of the study session would close their book and compete for the right answer.
We learned to practice under stress. If you could’ve looked inside my brain during that first midterm exam, you likely would’ve seen a neural pain response a lot like the math-anxious individuals I study. It was probably there during the stressful study situation as well.
But when I walked into the final, my mind was quiet, and I actually got one of the highest grades in the entire class. It wasn’t just about learning the material; it was about learning how to overcome my limits when it mattered most.
What happens in our heads really matters, and knowing this, we can learn how to prepare ourselves and others for success, not just on the playing field but in the boardroom and in the classroom as well.